Excerpts from Tears in Paradise

Indo-Fijians have lived in Fiji for over a hundred years. The pioneer generation, referred to as Girmitiyas, was brought to Fiji by the British as indentured labourers to work in the sugarcane plantations. Some returned after the completion of their five-year indenture, but a majority chose not to return to India. My grandparents, who were Girmitiyas, were in this category. It is from them that I first learned about the infamous Girmit period in Fiji.

-From Tears in Paradise

The sugarcane fields have constantly gripped my attention. Behind the beauty lies sadness, both profound and intense. There is an eeriness emanating from their silence. Even in stillness, one can almost feel the powerful presence of the spirits of sorrow and grief exuding from these sugarcane fields. They are the spirits of our ancestors.

-From Tears in Paradise

The sugar industry in Fiji was established with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors, a majority of who were Hindu. Hinduism assertively claims that the spirits of those who die in tragic circumstances do not find a resting place. The spirits of the dead become part of that environment. Indenture was that tragic period.

-From Tears in Paradise

Daadaji, my paternal grandfather, was a remarkable man. Both he and my Naanaji (maternal grandfather) had the same name: Budhai. Names in that generation often celebrated the day on which they were born. They were born on Budhwaar (Wednesday) and so they were named Budhai. A female born on Budhwaar was named Budhia.

-From Tears in Paradise

My Daadaji and Naanaji came to Fiji aboard the ship Sangola II in 1908. Daadaji was a man of intellect and wisdom; Naanaji was of a fiery nature and seemed to think that anger and violence were a substitute for reason. By nature, they were incompatible and disliked each other.

-From Tears in Paradise

The stories of Daadaji initially created an intense desire in me to know more about my roots, about Girmit and about India. Over the years, the void created by his death (in 1962), was filled by my Daadiji, who as resourceful in story telling as he was; and indeed, more open about the horrors of Girmit.

-From Tears in Paradise

I did not know that an opportunity would arise to radically change my perception of that period and set me on course to remove the unwarranted shame, which had robbed successive generations of Indo-Fijians of their claim to a rich legacy. In 1974, while I was the Town Clerk at Ba, the Indian government granted me a scholarship to undertake a series of courses in municipal management at the Indian Institute of Public Administration,
New Delhi.

-From Tears in Paradise

In Delhi, my days passed easily, attending lectures. Nights, however, were more difficult. My thoughts were influenced by the anxiety I had seen in my father’s eyes when he asked me to retrace our roots.

-From Tears in Paradise

It was through the assistance of Shambhunath Tandon, my colleague at the institute that I was able to trace our family roots. He brought a bunch of letters, in one of which, his classmate Ramkumar Khare had mentioned that my grandfather’s name was Budhai, the wife’s name was Dulara and that his only son was Ram Lal (my father). The name of the cousin who had accompanied Daadaji to Fiji was Dhelai and his wife was Changura (Daadaji). Their only son was Shiu Prasad. There were letters written by my father in 1928, 1945 and 1948 with our family photographs. One of them had mentioned that if I were the youngest son of Ram Lal my name would be Rajendra Prasad.

I was stunned at the revelations.

-From Tears in Paradise

As we came near to our family home, I could see a huge expectant crowd waiting for us. It was a colourful scene. Women wore deep colours while men were in dhoti. Some had shaven heads with churki (topknots), reminding me that this tradition was lost to the Girmitiya generation in Fiji. Even the young ones had their heads shaved with small tufts of churki flirting with the wind.

I felt strange. There was a touch of eeriness as I came near my ancestral home. I felt a warm spiritual embrace, which was guiding me to the source of my roots. My beloved Daadaji was no longer physically in this world but I felt that he was leading me in spirit into the waiting arms of his anxious family.

-From Tears in Paradise

I returned to Fiji with renewed pride in my heritage. In the pervading colonial atmosphere of Fiji, I had lost my identity and in some respects was happy to have lost it. Colonialism treated us with contempt, keeping us under the shadow of the sahibs; we had lost the dignity to which we had an inherent right. In the presence of the sahibs, I was cowed by their vanity and arrogance. India restored in me the inner strength to see that the sahibs were in no way superior to me.

-From Tears in Paradise

Indenture in Fiji was a miserable period for the indentured Indian labourers. Their ability to withstand the rigours and violence of the five-year term of their indenture was a singular feat of human endurance. How and why they bore the tragic period from recruitment to the end of their term of indenture has not previously been looked at from the Girmitiyas’ perspective.

-From Tears in Paradise

I have often reflected on the tragedy of Girmit as it affected my grandparents, and its subsequent impact on me. Was I ashamed that my grandparents had served the indenture? I was not. However, I seethed with anger at the violence and exploitation of the innocent by those who had a legal and moral duty to protect them. The guilt of the crime belonged to the persecutors and not to the persecuted. I was unaware that the time would come when I would be caught in the whirlpool of my conviction to unfold the tyranny of Girmit, and to seek redemption for the wrongful stigma that had hung over our people. My anger led to anguish, and anguish into passion, and the passion into an obsession to restate the history of our people in a different light.

-From Tears in Paradise

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